You could be forgiven for thinking the average man in the street understands what a graphic designer does, but it's readily apparent that they do not. Sure, there's a basic understanding that you work with graphics or pictures, but very little understanding of what is involved in the production of a graphic design.
The tragic consequence of this is that anyone with a computer and a modicum of drawing ability is able to hang out their shingle and call themselves a designer. This isn't right, not by a long shot. And it's something we all need to do something about, because it is improperly increasing the level of competition that we face, driving down prices in a market that was already tough to begin with.
Collectively, as an industry of graphic design professionals, we need to change the public perception of what we do, by raising awareness of the difference between designers and illustrators. This in no way implies that illustrators are of no value, but there is a huge gulf between illustration and design that can only be bridged through appropriate training.
To be successful in illustration demands a high level of artistic talent, and we all should respect that. We should respect it all the more because graphic design does not demand anywhere near that level of artistic talent in order to enjoy success from it.
But graphic design does have many demands that illustrators don't generally face, so whereas you don't necessarily have to be the reincarnation of Michelangelo to be great graphic designer, you really do need to know all the technical aspects of design, which include marketing, communications, and psychology.
Changing the public perception is important because there is a need to ensure that prospective clients understand the value of hiring professional designers with the proper training and skills to create designs that will get the intended results.
Clients who just want something that “looks good” will be lucky to survive in business, let alone reach their full potential. Many of those who are successful may never understand how much of their success can be attributed to the quality of the brand image you have created for them.
Here are some of the things you can personally do to contribute to improving the public perception of professional graphic designers:
1. Actually be a professional designer
There are some semantic arguments over what the term “professional” really means. For some, it's just about whether you get paid or not. For others, it can be about your business conduct. But to be truly professional, you need to have a level of expertise that goes beyond what you could merely figure out through trial and error methods.
You don't necessarily need to do a formal course, because it is possible to teach yourself through books, but a proper academic course in graphic design is the best way to get a really in-depth understanding. It's certainly not the study units that focus on drawing and design techniques that are of most value in these courses.
Those skills are mostly talent-based, and at best you'll just improve on the natural ability you already have. The real gold in an academic course is the theory. When you learn the underlying principles of marketing and psychology, you'll be equipped with the knowledge that helps you play a role in building brands.
Every part of this is important, and if you don't understand that, you're in the wrong line of work. Companies like McDonald's, KFC, and Coca-Cola all have something in common. The logos designed for these corporations are part of a very deliberate process that definitely takes marketing psychology into account. If you're pitching a design to a company and you don't know how to explain the psychological benefits of the design from a marketing perspective, then you are at a disadvantage compared to a designer who does.
2. Join a professional association
It's definitely a good idea to join a national or international graphic design association, and preferably one that requires more than just a financial contribution for you to qualify to join its ranks. But being a member of any professional association is better than not being a member of one. It is a small investment financially, but one that pays you back with increased credibility and access to information and resources that can help you in your career.
Once you have joined one of these associations, mention it in all your own advertising, on your stationary and so on. Usually this is as simple as including the logo of the association on the page.
3. Never miss an opportunity to promote the importance of professional design
Above all else, we need the public to understand our profession better, so if you have an opportunity to talk about the benefits of professional design, take it. Don't forget to mention the professional association that you're a member of, and explain that it's important for customers to be able to have confidence that the designer they are hiring is a properly qualified professional.
In this way, over time, the public will become better educated about the difference between the different types of graphic designers, and will hopefully understand the value that comes from working with real professionals.
4. Enter as many competitions as you can
Nothing helps to boost your own brand image, and the name of the designers who work for you, than to win awards. But even when you don't win, you're still gaining valuable exposure. More importantly, competitions (when they're properly promoted) also help to keep the concept of professional design in the public consciousness.
When they see great design and take a moment to appreciate it, then they may think a little before hiring some unknown freelancer from the internet just to save a few bucks.
Our industry is a strong one, but it needs to be protected from the massive influx of hopeful freelancers who don't have any real ability other than being able to draw. By falsely labeling themselves as designers, they are dragging down the reputation of true designers, and their fiercely competitive bidding is driving down the average market price on professional design.
They can afford to do this because they spend nothing on their education and they don't need to spend any time pondering the important questions about how to give the client the most effective result from a marketing perspective. In the unlikely event that they're even aware of the need to provide that value, they don't have the first clue of how to actually do it.
When non-professionals are allowed to masquerade as professionals, everybody loses except these charlatans. The client loses because they won't get the best return from their investment, and you as a professional designer lose in multiple ways, as has already been explained.
There is nothing we can do to stem the tide of new “designers” hanging out their shingles and soliciting for work, but we do have the power of information, and that's something we should use to our own advantage to raise the bar.